Thursday, July 21, 2011


As You Like It, the Public Theater, 2003

My last blog expressed my admiration for the Green Theatre Collective and their approach to performing theater. The “Green” in their title is not someone’s name; it’s part of their mission to make theatrical production environmentally friendly, to use up as few unsustainable resources as they can. This means taking a “minimalist” approach to theater, the most radical feature of which is: no stage. When Peter Quince, the director of Pyramis and Thisbe the play nestled nestled inside A Midsummer Night’s Dream) takes his band of rude mechanicals into the woods in search of a place to rehearse, he finds just the spot: “This green plot shall be our stage,” he tells them. There’s a metadramatic joke here, of course; the original audience had been watching the actors perform on a stage which they were forced to imagine as a wood; now, either they had to reimagine it as a stage, or simply stop imagining it altogether. The joke is lost, of course, if the stage has been transformed with fake grass and trees into a forest. GTC goes one step further: they perform the whole play on an actual green plot -- in the case of last week’s As You Like It, a lawn on a farm in Shelter Island.

They also employ no sets, no artificial light, vestigial costumes, and only seven actors for a play whose Dramatis Personae specifies 26 speaking parts. This may be, for them, largely a political and practical decision: they’re saving the earth and making do with what resources they can muster. I experience it more in esthetic terms. I’m a minimalist at heart; I hate lavishness. When I was 19, I saw Aida performed at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome with more pomp and circumstance than Kate and William’s wedding; there were live elephants on stage. I hated it. I was bored by the recent Tony-winning play War Horse, which as far as I was concerned was all chrome and no motor.

To make the overcoming of obstacles the dynamic of performing a play is not a new idea. Shakespeare would no doubt have welcomed kleig lights, rear projection, moveable sets and recorded sound effects, but he not only made do without them, he made the lack of them work for him. In the Prologue to Henry V, the Chorus disingenuously proclaims both the inadequacy of the project and its solution:

But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.

Shakespeare and Company, in the Berkshires, specializes in small-cast Shakespeare; I saw them do Julius Caesar with five actors, and tour-de-force of doubling. And the Public Theater, in 2003, 21-year-old Bryce Dallas Howard and six even lesser-known actors did an amazing As You Like It, in which most of the problems were solved by tumbling and acrobatics: Ron Pisoni played both Orlando and his brother Oliver, and in a dialogue between them, switched characters by doing alternate back and forward somersaults, donning and doffing a hat in midair.

Movies, television and the modern theater can supply whatever is needed in the way of realism without taxing the audience's willing suspension of disbelief; in fact, that's the business that Pixar is in. The Dogma movement in film, which I find ridiculously rigid and tendentious in most respects, is at least an attempt to clear the clutter. But thank God for underfunded but undiscouraged theater companies that are proving, all over the world, that less is much more than more.

Tomorrow or the next day: minimalism in text.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


First there was Hamptons Shakespeare Festival, in Montauk, for whom I worked as dramaturg for the six best summers of my life -- As You Like It, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, Much Ado About Nothing, The Winter's Tale, The Taming of the Shrew -- and which David Brandenburg has been trying to revive, so far without success. Then, when Josh Gladstone became the director of the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall, I was able to work on Julius Caesar, Macbeth and Hamlet. The two experiences were very different: one outdoors and the other indoors, one all romantic comedies and the other the darkest tragedies. But in two ways they were alike: they exhibited artistry in the highest degree, and they lost money. So, for the past five years, there's been no Shakespeare east of Shinnecock -- no Bard in Bridgehampton, no Avon in Amagansett, no William in Wainscott, no . . . well, you get the idea.

So I've pined, and languished, and made occasional summer forays into New York to keep my Shakespeare jones mamageable. But this past weekend, as if in some kind of time warp, Shakespeare came back to me. A company called the Green Theatre Collective, very young, enthusiastic and talented, has been roaming the Northeast, performing for a night or two in unlikely venues. What makes their work eco-theatrical is their tiny footprint: they don't build sets, they don't use artificial lighting (and so perform at 5 PM), they wear street clothes, and there are very few of them: on Sunday, we watched seven talented actors bring As You Like It to life at Sylvester Manor, essentially a working farm with some cultural ambitions on Shelter Island, with only an sail-less windmill as a backdrop.

Part of the process of paring down involved cutting the text and doubling most of the parts, which is part of the fun: the aristocratic Rosalind was equally convincing both as the male Ganymede and as the sluttish Audrey, and the fearsome Charles the Wrestler, at court, morphed into a gentle elderly peasant in the Forest. Sarah Hankins, the director, deserves full credit for making the limitations into benefits. She omitted Jaques's tedious and unnecessary farewell speech at the end; instead, the audience's peripheral vision caught the melancholy fellow ambling sadly away from the festivities on stage, a sad and moving moment.

I talked to the company's executive director, Hal Fickett (who played Orlando; everyone wears several hats) about the logistics of the operation. In a way, it's very simple: like their itinerant sixteenth-century forbears, they roam the countryside, accepting what humble food and lodging they can promote, living by their wits and Shakespeare's. They're living proof that large ensembles, expensive machinery, and modern technology are almost beside the point. There's an argument in the last act of A Midsummer Night's Dream in which Theseus, defending the efforts of the amateurs who are presenting a play so tragic it's funny, so bad it's wonderful, by saying, about plays in general, "The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them." His bride Hippolyta replies, "It must be your imagination then, and not theirs," and she's hit the bullseye: the more imaginative work the audience has to do, the more rewarding their experience will be. Lope de Vega, the great Spanish contemporary of Shakespeare's, described theater as merely "two boards and a passion," but as the Green Theatre Collective is proving, you don't even need boards if you have enough passion.

The company's website is

Sunday, July 10, 2011


He did it! Well, of course he did; it was only a matter of time. Some record-breaking performances are exciting because the question is whether the record will indeed be broken. Will someone on the PGA tour shoot a 58? Did Roger Maris hit 61 home runs, breaking Ruth’s season record, but in 8 more games? But it wasn’t a question of if Derek Jeter would get his 3000th hit but only when – and, given the season he’s been having, I dreaded the wait, the countdown. Remember when A-Rod was trying to hit that 600th home run, and kept not doing it? Get it over with, already.

As it turned out, in Jeter’s case, the wait was worth it. For a basically shy, closed-in, inarticulate person, judging from interviews, he has always had a flair for the dramatic: the “Flip Play” against Oakland in 2001, the catch he made against Boston diving into the stands and emerging with the ball and facial bruises are only two of the most famous examples. But five hits, the 3000th a shot into the left-field stands, the 3003rd a game-winning single!

But what makes him my favorite ballplayer, and the role model, the icon, the poster boy for the Great American Pastime, is not his operatic moments but what has come to be called his “work ethic”: no one in the game prepares more diligently and gives more of himself. In an age when great players like Manny Ramirez and Miguel Tejada (to name two egregious defenders) are known for loafing down to first after they’ve hit a ground ball to an infielder or are sure they’ve hit a home run, Jeter runs everything out. Maybe the infielder sees you busting down the line and makes a bad throw. Maybe your home run doesn’t quite make it and caroms off the wall and you end up at 2nd or even 3rd. When Jeter homered historically on July 9th, he put his head down and sprinted for first, and he didn’t slow to a jog until he’d rounded the bag, at which point the Rays’s first baseman literally took his hat off to him.

There was another, older ballplayer known for Jeter’s type of play, so much so that his nickname was “Charlie Hustle.” His real name was Pete Rose, but he might as well be called the Antichrist, if you judge him as organized baseball does. On and off the field, he was the antithesis of Jeter, a pugnacious wise guy who played rough (he broke a catcher’s shoulder in the All-Star Game by slamming into him at the plate) and bullied umpires; he was indicted for tax evasion; he was twice-divorced, the second time on uncontested grounds of adultery -- and he liked to gamble, which was his fatal weakness. After an amazing 22-year career as a player he became the manager of the Reds, the team he had played for. In 1989 he was accuseed of betting on them and permanently barred from baseball. That meant barred from the Hall of Fame, as well. Of course, betting against his team would have been a mortal sin, since, as manager, he could have easily rigged games by adjusting the line-up. But even betting that the Reds would win was unsavory – a sportswriter claimed that he never placed bets on nights when he named Mario Soto or Bill Gullickson as his starters.

Rose denied the charges until, in 2004, he wrote an autobiography in which he confessed to this sin. This only seemed to enrage the powers that be even more; he was accused of hypocrisy for waiting 15 years before coming clean. During those years, he lived a sqaulid life, even, at one point, sinking to professional wrestling.

Jeter’s accomplishment is not to be scoffed at. It takes talent consistently displayed over many years to amass 3,000 base hits. Only 26 other players have done it, and none of them Yankees – not Gehrig, not Ruth, not Mantle. The 3,000 hit club is one of the most exclusive in sports. Jeter will be a first-ballot unanimous selection to the Hall of Fame when he retires, and he deserves to be, not least because of all those base knocks.

But what bothers me is that the moment after they put the bat on the ball, Derek Jeter and Charlie Hustle looked a lot alike. If Jeter’s accomplishments on the field deserve to be celebrated both as athletic feats and paradigms of ethical behavior, how are Rose’s great moments invalidated by his private failings? What happens if we judge them both simply as ballplayers? Know how many hits Pete Rose, the Other, the Unmentionable, the living repudiation of all that baseball would like itself to be, ended up with? Four thousand, two hundred and sixty-five.

Saturday, July 9, 2011


Age starts to catch up with almost everyone in their 40's, especially with their vision.  You find yourself holding the menu farther and farther away, or squinting with one eye to make out blurry letters and figures, until you give in and buy a pair of reading glasses to correct your advancing far-sightedness.

Since the whole population is aging, you'd think the people who design our products would be cognizant of this problem, but they're not -- largely, I think, because engineering is a young person's game.  This is certainly true in the software business; those 23-year-old whiz-bangs don't think like the rest of us or see like the rest of us, which is why digital cameras, for example, come loaded with sub-sub-menus that are incomprehensible to laymen.  I'd include a picture of mine if I could figure out how to point the front of the camera at the back of the camera, but you get the idea.  At least the viewfinder has a diopter adjustment, so I can focus on what I'm focusing on. My wife's camera, which is newer, does away with the viewfinder altogether (people prefer, or are believed to prefer, screens, which suck power out of the battery like a weasel sucking eggs), and to use it, I have to don, of course, my reading glasses.

But let's stick with the vision thing.  Above are two control panels, the top one from our brand-new Hamilton Beach toaster oven, the bottom one the detachable face of our after-market Miata AM-FM-CD player.  Note the size of the words and numbers on the toaster oven, and their placement on the dials.  Not only do I have to put on my specs to operate them, I have to stoop down until I'm on the same level as the thing, because otherwise the bottom portion of the temperature range (top dial) and the length of desired cooking time (bottom dial) are hidden from view.

As to the sound system, I think it speaks for itself.  There are no fewer than 24 controls on the thing, most of them rocker switches with teensy-weensy numbers on them for mode, preset stations, and a host of other functions.  At 60 miles per hour, do you really want to be crouching to peer down at your radio, trying to remember where the volume control is or what you have to press to skip a track on a CD?

I could multiply these examples by a hundred; these happened to be handy.  There are exceptions.  Thank you, Kindle, for letting me choose the type size of whatever I'm reading.  And thank you iPad for letting me enlarge any portion of the screen just by pinching it.  But I wouldn't accept an iPhone if you gave me one, and my iPod isn't much better.

By the way:  if you're having trouble making out the details on the pictures above, you're proving my case.

Saturday, July 2, 2011


Jeff Nunokawa

I’ve written two books in my life – my dissertation (which was carved up and published as four articles) in 1967,  and Shakespeare’s Dilemmas, which was published in 1988 and got me promoted to full professor at Brooklyn College.  Both were worthwhile projects; both were endless torture.  I’m not suited to the format; I can’t hold the whole thing in my mind at one time.  My late friend Richard Uviller was exasperated by my failure to write more books; he thought I had much to say, he admired my writing, he told me I was denying my destiny.  Not so, I kept telling him.  My destiny, in literary terms at least, takes a short-format form:  I write articles.

He refused to accept that explanation:  articles, even scholarly ones, are ephemera, he claimed – they exist only for a moment, and are then buried under an avalanche of more articles.  Did Shakespeare write articles, he would ask?

Well, no, but Shakespeare wrote sonnets, and if I were a serious poet, so would I.  I think the greatest poem written in English is Paradise Lost, which is ten thousand lines long, but of course the epic form is not for me.  Fourteen lines seeems about right.  Wordsworth wrote a sonnet that defended sonnets from the charge that they were too slight to matter; it begins,

    Scorn not the sonnet:  Critic, you have frown’d,
    Mindless of its just honours; with this key
    Shakespeare unlock’d his heart; the melody
    Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound. . . .

The image of unlocking the heart points to the private, confessional nature of the sonnet; sonnets were sometimes writ small and folded into lockets, shown at the writer’s whim to whoever was deemed worthy.  No less a personage than Elizabeth I indulged in this practice.  I’m not a poet, though I write occasional verse, for birthday, wedding and anniversary toasts (see my birthday toast to Roger Sherman in the previous blog), but I can’t resist reprinting a poem I wrote while stuck in a subway tunnel one day years ago:

     They have no need of poetry,
     Those who should be moving shortly in the sooty tubes
     Beneath the river that surfaces at Times Square.
     No need of Strand's or Clampitt’s airy overviews
     That fresco the walls of buses,
     Short-haul limos awash in the city’s changing lights.
     No, those with tunnel vision
     Have more pressing concerns
     Than thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird.
     They need to know
     Where to get their torn earlobes stitched
     How to avoid AIDS and its evil twin SIDA
     And most of all
     What steps to take
     When they can’t move
     And the lights go out.

But I’ve never followed up with more verse.  If I did, it would probably be haiku; for me, as for Shakespeare and Wordsworth, the thrill of the short poem is the tension between getting something said despite the formal obstacles – in the latter case, 17 syllables, arranged in a 5-7-5 three-line pattern.  Haiku can be sensuous and lyrical, or funny:

    Left the door open
        For the prophet Elijah –
    Now our cat is gone.   (from Haiku for Jews)

Technology is on my side, of course.  Twitter mandates a limit of 140 words; most internet writing is stripped bare of grammar, punctuation and prolixity.  (Not mine; I write in standard English and proofread every e-mail I send.) 

But I just read a Talk of the Town piece in the July 4th New Yorker that opened a door for me. There’s a professor at Princeton named Jeff Nunowaka who writes a Facebook note every day – the count now exceeds 3000.  Typically they begin with a short citation from one of his favorite authors – George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, Gerard Manley Hopkins -- followed by scholarly “meditations – half literary-critical, half confessional.”

Nunowaka has respectable conventional credentials; he’s published two books, one on Dickens and Eliot and the other on Wilde.  But he now prefers the sociability of Facebook, and the fact that he can more easily connect with undergraduates there. When I read about his approach, I felt instantly empowered.  I’ll never write another book or journal article, and the book and play reviews that have occupied me for the past few years do feel insubstantial; when I fritter an afternoon away on the golf course, I feel guilty.  I’m very bad about contributing to this blog, because very few people read it (though it’s an endless loop:  I don’t write because they don’t read, and they don’t read because I don’t write).  But Facebook as a viable medium for actual writing!  Nunowaka and I are already “friends”; I’m going to ask him if it’s all right to start contributing notes to my own page.


Well, our friend Roger, now you know
Firsthand the infamous Six-Oh.
It wasn't hard to get there, was it?
It doesn't feel that different, does it?
The only thing to fear is fear;
You're still the man you were last year.
And there are upsides to this fate:
You get the senior movie rate,
And modern medicine can aid
Those needing help to make the grade –
Prostheses come in every shape,
Supports for back, wrist, shoulder, nape.
Viagra, Rogaine, other pills
Now minister to many ills
That earlier were thought to be
The lot of oldsters such as we.
So buck up, Dude! Stiff upper lip!
If need be, go replace a hip!
A birthday's an excuse to party,
So let us drink a toast most hearty
To wisdom and accomplishment,
The films that help to pay the rent:
There’s danny meyer, Richard Rodgers,
Fast Eddie and his boyish codgers,
There’s calder and there’s chevrolet,
Plus more than we have time to say,
And one that hasn’t yet been seen:
an ode to israel’s cuisine.
To all the blessings that have flowed,
And to the fun that you’re still owed,
From those of us in the same fix,
Here's to another decades six!